Review of Signature Theatre's Thom Pain (based on nothing), starring Michael C. Hall

  • Our critic's rating:
    November 13, 2018
    Review by:
    David Walters

    Thom Pain (based on nothing), despite the title, is based on everything.

    Written by Will Eno and starring Michael C. Hall, this monologue play, just over an hour, was first presented in 2005 (and was a finalist for the Pulitzer that year) and is currently having a revival at Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the Signature Theatre Legacy Program.

    Upon arrival, the theater is in a disarray as if preparing for a load-in, with ladders (some up, some down), large water jugs for the workers, plastic hung to protect walls and lighting, blue netting covering the ceiling as if under repair. Nothing is set and ready, nothing is prepared, nothing is complete. The only thing not under construction are the seats.

    The lights go to black.

    There is the sound of a person shuffling out on stage and they attempt to light a cigarette, once, twice, “I should quit” (a comment about life?).

    Like someone who just left the room and is but a memory, through self-deprecating humor and pathos, through fits and starts, Thom (Michael C. Hall) takes us through a life lived, still living, still dying, still trying.

    “Poor Thom’s a trying.”

    “I’m the type of person you might not hear from for some time, but then, suddenly, one day, bang, you never hear from me again.”

    He starts the story, because we all do want a story (the audience proclaimed a resounding YES when asked), with the pain at the end of childhood, telling about a boy (himself, ourselves), a puddle, a stick and an electrocuted dog. That hurt, carried into adulthood, colors his outlook as his life unfolds about his relationships, his friends, his family and his work. He truthfully observes, “Isn’t it wonderful how we never recover?”

    The thoughts and observations falling out of his mind are not linear and dance from avoidance, to gallows humor, to deep profundity that will leave you searching those parallels in your own life. There is a deep poetry in Eno’s words (me being a fan of Bukowski), a poetry of reflection, judgement and the bitter irony of what befalls us as we grumble, stumble and tumble through our lives.

    Thom plays with the audience throughout the evening, knowing that everyone is momentarily on his journey. Enjoying his limited power, he dangles thoughts and abruptly pulls them away, chastising for even having considered them: “Why is an old lady like a tiny motorcycle? (He waits to see if an answer is forthcoming.) Well, of course, she isn’t, she isn’t at all. You should be disgusted with yourself for even for a second trying to think of how she might be.” As he later acknowledges, this power flex is but an effort to help dampen his own personal pain.

    At the beginning of the play, Thom says that he doesn’t like magic, but just as nothing is everything, ultimately this is a play all about magic. The magic of human interaction, through site, through questions and statements, through the exchange of thought and idea, through reaching out, connecting and sharing in order to, “Try to be someone better.”

    “I know this wasn’t much, but, let it be enough. Do.”

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    What the popular press says...

    "The dark and sulfurous chamber of Thom Pain’s mind has been unsealed for public inspection again. Audiences already familiar with Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), which has been revived by the Signature Theater, may find this Stygian space roomier and less oppressive than they remembered. Oliver Butler’s new production, which opened on Sunday night, lets some fresh air and even a sliver of sunlight into the nocturnal depths of its title (and only) character’s imagination. And with a handsome, self-assured Michael C. Hall in the role of Pain (a last name that shrieks volumes), he appears as less of a lost cause than he once did."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Eno’s text is a wonderfully light thing—a butterfly’s erratic passage through a man’s mind as he tries to narrate both his past (the death of his boyhood dog, a bee attack, a love gone forever) and the constant, irritating demands of the theatrical present."
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    "Will Eno’s one-man tour de force Thom Pain (based on nothing), now in a thrilling revival at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center, reimagines Samuel Beckett as if through the filter of Jerry Seinfeld."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "Hall delivers a riveting turn that makes this challenging play fully accessible."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    "In the text, this Thom Pain is revealed as a not-very-nice person obsessed with life — not the Life in which we all share, but with his own narrow existence. Hall tries his level best to be true to this self-absorbed character; but he just can’t help himself. He’s a fine actor, but a personable one, much too likable to pull off the character’s blinding, self-regarding narcissism. Under the direction of Oliver Butler, co-founder and artistic director of The Debate Society, the actor has been well-schooled in the subtle sneer that indicates charming contempt for everyone outside his own skin. But nice is nice, and this Thom Pain is someone too good for his world — and ours."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time Out - The Wrap - Hollywood Reporter - Variety